- - Tuesday, October 28, 2014

As states have begun to implement Common Core State Standards in earnest, controversy around the initiative has swelled. Some have voiced legitimate concerns about the impact higher standards will have on students, what will be taught in classrooms and how it will be taught — but much more of the debate has devolved into politicking and mudslinging, drowning out important discussion about the future for our kids.

What is apparent amid the clamor, and what the evidence from states that have embraced the standards continues to underscore, is that the Common Core standards are working.

Last week, Kentucky, the first state to adopt and fully implement Common Core standards, released the results of its most recent student assessments. The findings were telling. College-readiness rates increased for the third year in a row. At each grade level, proficiency rates climbed in math and reading. Inequality gaps narrowed and graduation rates grew — and the state surpassed its own accountability goal.

“The numbers show, without a doubt, that we are making progress,” said Terry Holiday, the state education commissioner. “The gains we are seeing are the result of a lot of hard work by our teachers, administrators and our students, with the support of parents, community members and our education partners. They all share in this good news.”

Such achievements aren’t limited to Kentucky. Neighboring Tennessee, another early adopter of the Common Core, made the biggest improvement in college-readiness scores in the state’s history, which ACT President Jon Erickson called “indicative of real academic progress.” In New York, steady gains in math scores prompted The Daily News to write, “The chorus of ‘can’t’ was wrong … . If responsible adults show fortitude, and if they have the sense to learn from schools that are making the biggest gains, children can and will achieve in ever-greater numbers.”

Such notable successes demonstrate how effective setting higher expectations in our classrooms is, especially when states are willing to put their full support behind it. They stand in stark contrast with the reports coming out of Oklahoma, the only state to abandon the Common Core State Standards, and turn the clock back to old, inferior standards. Although Oklahoma’s Board of Regents eventually approved the state’s old standards, it noted that nearly 40 percent of high school graduates require remediation upon entering college. “It’s like they have to take high school courses all over again, and they’re not getting any credit for it,” an Oklahoma Department of Education spokesman said.

Common Core standards evolved from the realization by parents, educators and others that our education system was shortchanging students, and worse, that instead of addressing the problem, we were masking it by lowering the academic bar. In 2009, only 39 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above proficiency levels on NAEP testing. “Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important,” mused Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, at the time.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam put it another way: “We had a definition of proficiency that was essentially dishonest to parents.” In Tennessee, schools were graduating 90 percent of high school students as “proficient.” Yet, 70 percent the state’s first-time freshmen at community colleges required remediation in order to be ready for college-level coursework.

Additionally, huge variances existed in standards between states, and even between school districts. It didn’t make sense that nearly 20 percent of eighth-graders in Massachusetts could perform advanced-level math, but only 2 percent of their peers in Mississippi could. Additionally, if a family moved, a student could find himself or herself struggling to catch up or forced to sit through the teaching of material they already mastered.

Common Core State Standards are built on the belief that we as a nation must set higher, clearer goals for students and schools in order to help every student achieve their potential and be ready for success after high school. Led by the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers, 48 states collaborated to help develop the Common Core State Standards. Because they are a baseline that transcend state borders, students who move from one state to another (like military kids) don’t lose precious time because they are too far ahead or behind. They also ensure that employers and parents have a guarantee that students who’ve graduated from different states have mastered the basics.

Today, governors and policymakers face a decision: They can hold the course and continue to support higher expectations in our classrooms for all students that set them up for success, or they can go the way of Oklahoma and go backwards. Evidence is demonstrating the promise of Common Core State Standards for students. Parents and teachers should demand that state leaders see it through.

Karen Nussle is the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. She previously served as an aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

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